HOFFSTEDT: The prairie and the forest

Aug 14, 2012


Today, the onions are gone and only tall skyscrapers grow along that same shoreline.

The boy in our story grew up in this city.

Close to the northern edge of this city ran a paved boulevard westward from the lake’s shoreline. It was busy with cars and buses. About 8 miles from the lake along this road is where the boy grew up.

On its south side was a two-block by three-block open area that everyone called the “prairie.” It was filled with prairie grasses with patches of ragweed and other growth.

Up close to the boulevard stood the only tree in the prairie. It was an old, gnarled apple tree. It provided a central point that drew everyone’s gaze, and it was the place where the boy and his pals in the neighborhood gathered to plan their day’s activities. It bloomed with scroungy, small flowers each spring, but it never bore fruit.

It was from this tree that the boy viewed this open land and watched the traffic flow both east and west. He had been told by his parents that playing in the prairie was OK, but crossing this road was prohibited. But as small boys are wont to do, prohibitions are viewed as invitations to do the opposite.

On the north side of this busy boundary line laid a vast world of a pristine forest. The city fathers, in their infinite wisdom, had put aside acres and acres of original woodlands that could never be built upon.

The boy and his young friends would gather at the tree and carefully plan their illicit crossing of the boulevard. They would make sure no parents were evident and then quickly dart between speeding cars to enter their beloved playground. They would act out their favorite stories like King Arthur and Robin Hood. They truly believed they were in Sherwood Forest.

One bright Sunday afternoon, they heard a new sound. The sound of drums — bass drums and snare drums. The boy scrambled up the apple tree to see what was coming. Long lines of marching soldiers were coming from the direction of the lake, and when the guide-on bearer was opposite the boy, they did a column right and disappeared into their forest as the boy and his chums watched.

They went home with heavy hearts. Someone had entered Sherwood Forest.

It wasn’t until the following Saturday that they were free to gather again. They looked across the road and were dismayed to see a large cleared area with row after row of Army tents with soldiers everywhere putting the finishing touches on their campsite. There were trucks and supplies everywhere.

It was weeks until the boys could gather again. They carefully crossed over and slipped quietly into the woods just west of the camp and could hear shouts, grunts and water splashing. They crept up to where the sounds were coming from.

The soldiers had cut dozens of trees and had built a complex obstacle course for physical training. The soldiers were climbing up, over and under wooden beams. Some beams had been positioned in an A-frame on each side of the river with heavy ropes dangling from the peak, with soldiers swinging from one side to the other; some losing their grip and tumbling into the muddy river.

Robin and Lancelot had been driven from their forest.

The boy grew older and soon even the prairie no longer provided a satisfactory place to let his imagination run wild. The Army camp eventually disappeared, leaving only remnants of the obstacle course. The boy became a man and went into the Army himself, all the time remembering Robin and Lancelot.

The boy is much older now. He has children of his own and he also has grandchildren.

Recently, he took his grandson by the hand and headed back to the prairie. It was gone. Just homes and streets filled the area. They didn’t save the apple tree either. Nothing but rows of small houses.

There was now a stoplight on the boulevard, so crossing was no longer a challenge. The forest was still there, but somehow it looked different. The area where the Army tents had been was now overgrown with a mess of unrecognizable plants.

He and his grandson walked to the area where the obstacle course once stood. The A-frames were still there, but the ropes had rotted away.

Robin and Lancelot were silent now. He and his grandson walked out of the forest, and he knew that he would never return again.

— By Richard Hoffstedt, Tribune community columnist


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